Monday, 14 March 2011

A sign of the (passing) times

Amazing how a simple shop sign can set a whole train of thought going.
A sign to conjure up dreams. Or nightmares
It happened the other day when I walked past the ‘Little Beirut’ sign in Luton town centre.

Ah, Beirut. They used to call it the Paris of the Mediterranean. My mother loved the place when she was there for some weeks back in 1947.

Her hotel was on the beach, with sun during the day and the sea breezes at night, and it took only fifteen minutes to drive into the hills and Lebanon’s emblematic cedars. Further up in the mountains, you could go skiing while watching bathers swimming from the beaches below.

There were two unusually harsh winters in England immediately after the end of the Second World War. Just to enjoy more merciful weather must have been a blessed relief, to say nothing of the pleasure of a gentle and friendly welcome into a city of charm and elegance. ‘It was a lovely, clean, pleasant city,’ my mother recalls, ‘a tourist town.’

But she adds ‘I was privileged to see it before it got ruined.’ The golden days of Beirut weren't going to last. As she tells me, ‘there were murmurs of things not being as they should be, but we weren’t really aware of anything.’ The murmurs turned into something much louder just a few months after her visit, when a bomb exploded in the Jewish quarter, though it caused no casualties.

Beirut: appealing...
...and rather less so
Since then there have been many more bombs and they have caused innumerable casualties. The Jews have gone, those who could heading south into what was Palestine then and is Israel now. They've been replaced by many thousands of Palestinians living in the refugee ghettos of the city. Christians have fought Moslems, different groups of Moslems have fought each other, peace keepers have come in, been blown up and gone, Syria has sent forces and so has Israel (again and again), Palestinians have been massacred and have fought back. If you haven't seen the Israeli film Waltzing with Bashir, the most powerful cartoon I know, watch it and see how far the Paris of the Mediterranean has been plunged into carnage and shame. 

So I hesitated when I stood in front of ‘Little Beirut’ in Luton. What would I find if I went in? It would have been wonderful to recapture the atmosphere of the city my mother visited and loved half a century ago. But what if it had conjured up the bloodied bodies and the heaps of rubble?

And how disappointing if it simply turned out to be yet another of the countless kebab shops that keep cropping up on our street corners.

Best just to walk past and meditate on how difficult we find it to preserve peace and harmony if we can even build them in the first place.

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